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Subminimum wage for disabled workers called 'unjust

By Patric Haerle, Washington State Journal

In what is being labeled a civil rights issue by advocates, lawmakers are considering ending the decades old practice of paying workers with a disability less than the state minimum wage.

Under the current system, the Department of Labor and Industries can allow employers to pay workers with disabilities wage less than the state minimum. To qualify, employers must describe how the disability negatively impacts earnings and what the proposed wage would be.

There is no set floor for how low the wages can be, as long as employers get approval from the U.S Department of Labor to pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

This practice predates by more than three decades the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.

“We're back at this work again this year because it's a civil rights issue to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage,” said Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, at a public hearing of the bill on Feb. 1. Randall introduced a similar bill in 2019 that never got out of committee.

Seattle eliminated subminimum wage for workers with disabilities in 2018, and in 2020 Washington State Agencies did the same.

“Continuing to allow subminimum wage, lets employers treat folks with disabilities as less than,” Randall said. “That is simply unjust and it hurts everyone in our communities. It hurts our economy, and it marginalizes our neighbors.”

Among those who testified in support, were advocates who had worked for far under minimum wage in the past.

“ I...worked a six hour a day job over the summer of 2003, and only made roughly $70 every two weeks,” said John Lemus, an Advocacy Coordinator for AtWork!, which helps establish job connections for people with disabilities. “This is absolutely unacceptable, and we should not allow it to happen anymore. This is either going to happen at the state level, or it will happen at the federal level in the next two years, and you will be told how to do it.”

In the past several years, several states have eliminated subminimum wages.

Randall reshaped her bill from 2019 to address concerns brought up by caretakers, who say differences from person to person should be addressed.

“While I understand the intentions of this bill, I have great concerns about the collateral damage not being addressed,” said Cheryl Felak, a registered nurse and guardian for her adult son who works with a developmental disability.

“Safeguards are currently in place to prevent any exploitation or discrimination for people who choose this type of employment. Eliminating this choice will not improve the socioeconomic status of any of the participants,” Felak said. “There has been no study on the outcome of previous changes.”

The bill would phase out the current program, preventing L&I from issuing any subminimum wage certificates after July of 2023.

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